Week of 7/3/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Why is it bad for the environment to release balloons into the air?

—George Young, New York, NY

Given that "what goes up must come down," balloons released into the air—whether by accident or in large quantities at events—eventually end up as trash on the ground or in bodies of water. In addition—and as any wildlife or marine mammal protection organization will tell you—spent balloons are dangerous to animals, which often get tangled up in the attached ribbons or strings or mistake balloons for prey and ingest them, wreaking havoc with their digestive tracts.

Indeed, according to the non-profit organization, Clean Virginia Waterways, floating balloons—which may look like delicious jellyfish to unsuspecting sea creatures—are responsible for the deaths of thousands of sea turtles, dolphins, fish and seabirds, many whose populations are already endangered due to other man-made threats.

Consumers and event planners should not be misled by industry groups who maintain that balloons pose no environmental threat because they are constructed of biodegradable latex. Even though most latex is biodegradable, it takes at least six months to break down in the environment, and only when exposed to sun or water. So says the Balloon Council, a trade group of balloon makers which otherwise encourages balloon releases and dismisses arguments that balloons are either polluting or injurious to wildlife. Meanwhile, Mylar balloons, while less common than their latex counterparts, are not biodegradable and can be toxic in their own right when ingested by wildlife.

Interestingly, the Balloon Council labels as "misinformation" claims that wildlife can be injured by ingesting balloons, yet duly warns on its website that young children under the age of eight "may choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons."

According to the Michigan Environmental Council, which coordinated one recent beach clean-up event where volunteers picked up more than 4,500 discarded balloons along the shores of Lake Michigan, the solution to the problem is simple: "Don’t participate in balloon releases, don’t use balloons as decorations during outside events, and when you hear of a balloon release being organized, inform the organizers that what they are doing is littering."

Mass release of balloons is illegal in several U.S. states, including Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, California and Virginia, and similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and in some municipal locales. Meanwhile, Great Britain’s Marine Conservation Society has kicked off a campaign to educate the public about the dangers of balloon releases. The group is asking corporate and government event planners in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to sign onto its Voluntary Ban on Balloon Releases.

CONTACTS: Clean Virginia Waterways, www.longwood.edu/cleanva; Michigan Environmental Council, www.mecprotects.org; Balloon Council, www.balloonhq.com/BalloonCouncil; Marine Conservation Society, www.mcsuk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Other than calculators, what are some other accessories and gadgets that are now available solar-powered?

—Frank Rogers, Concord, NH

While solar-powered calculators have been readily available and inexpensive for two decades, only recently has such technology been applied to other tools, accessories and small appliances.

Perhaps the most widespread use of energy from the sun today is for charging up small electronic devices like flashlights, watches, palm pilots and cell phones. Solar cells are also being put to use around the home increasingly to power garden, pool and security lighting as well as automatic watering and lawn-feeding devices. And as photovoltaic technology improves, people are using small solar cells to power up bigger devices like radios, cameras and even laptop computers. A good assortment of such items can be ordered from online stores such as Brunton, Sundance Solar, Real Goods, Global Merchants and Energy Federation (EFI).

Well beyond the realm of gadgetry, EFI sells a solar-powered oven, made by Sun Ovens International, which is working to protect the environment and raise the standard of living for the poor worldwide by developing solar cooking technologies that reduce the developing world’s reliance on scarcer and scarcer wood products. The interior of the oven is heated by passive solar energy when the oven’s reflectors are opened up and pointed toward the sun. According to the EFI website, "even though it is called an oven, food can be baked, boiled, and steamed at cooking temperatures of 360° F to 400° F." Here in the developed world, the Sun Oven can save resources and keep the air cleaner when used for backyard cooking or on camping outings.

According to Wired Magazine, climber Sean Burch used solar cells to charge his laptop and phone during his solo ascent of Mt. Everest in 2003. "The sun was so bright at 18,000 feet that it wasn’t a problem at all," said Burch, who didn’t have the manpower to bring along the hundred-pound batteries used by bigger climbing crews to power communications devices. "It was nice because I had my computer, solar panels and phone and I could communicate as well as anyone," he said. Indeed, by strapping small photovoltaic cells onto their backpacks, panniers and kayaks, adventurers heading out into the wilds can stay in touch with loved ones—and rescue crews if needed—more reliably and for less money than ever.

Despite the profusion of solar-powered devices, environmentally-conscious consumers know that it is greener not to buy something that they don’t need. According to the website GreenChoices.org, people should only buy gadgets that are "genuinely useful additions to a green household, things that actually save energy or water, or make living green easier."

CONTACTS: Brunton, www.brunton.com; Sundance Solar, www.sundancesolar.com; Real Goods, www.realgoods.com; Global Merchants, www.global-merchants.com; Energy Federation (EFI), www.efi/org; Green Choices, www.greenchoices.org.